Emboldened Gazans express anger at Hamas over cease-fire talks impasse

A Palestinian walked past rubble in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. PHOTO: MAHMOUD ISSA/REUTERS
A Palestinian walked past rubble in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. PHOTO: MAHMOUD ISSA/REUTERS


The endless rounds of negotiations about how to end the war are frustrating those who have the most to gain from a cease-fire.

Gaza’s war-weary population is growing increasingly frustrated with the fruitless cycles of cease-fire talks, as a new poll of Palestinians shows support for Hamas dwindling in the enclave.

Months of diplomacy between Israel, Hamas and mediators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have failed to produce agreement even on the outline of a deal that would stop the fighting and free the hostages in Gaza.

The endless back and forth, as the death toll from the war mounts and the humanitarian situation in the strip deteriorates, is fueling unprecedented public discontent in Gaza with the militant group that seized power there almost two decades ago.

Fadi Awad, 32, a father of five living in a tent in central Gaza, said he was fed up with the negotiations and that Hamas was out of touch. “We hear positive talks, then pull back, then breakthrough, then it all falls apart and with it, our lives," Awad, an electrician, said.

“Our leaders, Hamas, the Arabs, they watch us on TV from their hotels," he added. “[They] do not know what it’s like to run for your life, hungry and barefoot."

As the talks about the talks drag on, support for Hamas as rulers in Gaza has fallen from 52% to 46% over the past three months, according to a survey of more than 700 residents of the enclave. In the West Bank, the trend is reversed, with 71% of Palestinians questioned supporting Hamas’s continued rule in Gaza, up from 64% in the previous poll.

Hamas didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The survey took place at the end of May, before an Israeli operation to rescue four hostages left 274 Palestinians dead and 700 injured at the weekend, according to Palestinian health authorities. The Israeli military said about 100 Palestinians were killed or wounded, including Hamas militants and civilians caught in the crossfire.

In response, Hamas has hardened its negotiating stance, adding new terms that Israel can’t swallow to an Israeli proposal presented by President Biden almost two weeks ago. In a statement late Wednesday, the militant group said it had shown the “required positivity" to reach an agreement that “meets our people’s just demands, including a permanent cease-fire, complete withdrawal from the territory, return of displaced people, reconstruction and a serious prisoner exchange deal."

On Thursday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Hamas hadn’t accepted the proposal but instead had responded with an amended proposal. “Our goal is to figure out how we work to bridge the remaining gaps to get to a deal," he told reporters ahead of the G-7 summit in Italy.

Both Israel and Hamas have for months haggled over fundamental differences preventing them from reaching a cease-fire agreement, in a familiar playbook that has ended each time in a collapse of round after round of talks. Hamas wants a permanent stop to the war and withdrawal of Israeli forces in exchange for hostages held in Gaza. Israel has said it won’t leave Hamas intact in the enclave and needs its hostages back before the war is declared over.

“People in Gaza have lost faith in Hamas, including many of the movement’s supporters. But people hate Israel more," said a resident of the enclave who asked not to be named.

Hamas has typically cracked down on public dissent in peacetime. But with Hamas personnel largely gone from the streets, public criticism of the group inside Gaza is growing, including on social media. At the same time, fear of retribution from Hamas for publicly criticizing the group is diminishing, locals say.

Nu’man Hamouda, a 23-year-old accountant, lost nine relatives, several friends, his job and home during the war. “If Hamas and Abbas heard our screams they will be the ones to end this now, unite and say they surrender," he said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

Despite Hamas’s waning popularity in Gaza, it is still by far the most popular Palestinian political party in Gaza and the West Bank, the poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found. More than two thirds of those polled said they supported the Oct. 7 attacks.

Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza and now based in Cairo, said the current level of public criticism of Hamas is unprecedented, stemming from the perception that Hamas is detached from the everyday suffering of Gazans.

While polls show Hamas continues to enjoy popularity among Palestinians in general who see the group as having revived their cause on the global stage, he said wartime polls don’t really capture the strength of feeling against Hamas among Gazans.

“Maybe 80% of Palestinians in the West Bank and diaspora love Hamas, something that they gave them honor or dignity, but for someone who lives in Gaza and is paying the price, it’s a totally different story," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to preserve his coalition and drum up support in his cabinet for a deal, has argued publicly that the plan presented by Biden could achieve Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas’s government and military capabilities. Those statements have led Hamas and many in Israel to believe Netanyahu isn’t serious about the proposal.

An organization representing a majority of families with relatives held hostage in Gaza said it saw Hamas’s recent response to the cease-fire proposal as “another step towards" the deal’s acceptance.

Polls show a majority of Israelis prefer a deal to release hostages and end the war over continuing hostilities against Hamas.

In Gaza, according to the United Nations, over 1.7 million people are displaced and over a million are facing “catastrophic levels of food insecurity." Much of the pre-existing healthcare system is either completely or partially out of service, and since early May, thousands of patients who need to be evacuated from the strip for emergency healthcare have been unable to leave, the U.N. said.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian health authorities. The figure doesn’t specify how many were combatants.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, came to power in Gaza through elections held in 2006. It has since imposed authoritarian rule over the territory, clashing with the more moderate Fatah party—which runs the Palestinian Authority that controls parts of the West Bank—and losing much of its popularity. The Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

A majority of Gazans polled believed that Israel and Hamas would agree to a cease-fire proposal last month, just before Israel began its current operations in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where people fled for shelter at the start of the war. Now, with the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha set for this weekend and talks at an impasse, it looks like Palestinians will spend another holiday without a cease-fire.

Saleh al-Batati and Ken Thomas contributed to this article.

Write to Dov Lieber at dov.lieber@wsj.com

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